Dark, small, withered, my mother’s fingers curve around the half onion. With her other hand she wields her knife and dices the onion into bits so small they rival the garlic at the edge of the cutting board. I hover by her shoulder and ask what I can do.
“You?” she says, as if I have never stood here before, never watched and learned. In a syllable, I’m small.
She asks me to wash and peel the five-pound bag of potatoes. It’s a glum sort of work, running your hands over the eyes and plucking them out. I do this without looking and watch her instead. Her body is bones and angles. She wears her hair tucked behind one ear, short as a boy’s. She finishes the onions and starts on dough. Flour, water, carom seeds. She kneads with vigor, rolls with strength. She is not graceful, but on these days she dances to music that isn’t there, embodies a sound with the stretch of her body and the movement of her hands.
Mom insists I tie up my long hair before I lose it all in the food. Her voice is harsh, sarcastic. Some women sing like songbirds; my mother is the raven. These are the only nights she relishes in cooking.
“Why don’t you let Dad cook?” I’d ask on an ordinary weeknight, as she mutters and throws together a Crock-Pot meal.
“I don’t want scrambled eggs,” she snaps.
I swear to myself that I’d eat scrambled eggs every night if Dad made them, in earnest. She has no softness even for him.
But once a month or so, on Saturdays like this, Mom boils potatoes and peas, grates ginger, and peels garlic—no shortcuts, nothing ready-made. She adds masalas to the mashed vegetables from unmarked spice jars, spices she uses for nothing else. You know them by smell, she says. I’ve watched her for years and can discern no difference in the smells.
She adds a dollop of vegetable filling to each dough round, folds it over into triangles, and crimps the end with the tips of her fingers. Then the oil, hot to boiling. Each triangle sizzles and cracks and bubbles, and when they emerge golden, she stands them up on their flat side so they look like the Pyramids of Giza.
Mom makes the best samosas in the world. No restaurant or frozen food comes close. Not even the ones on our trips to India could compare. She makes dozens of these a month and stores the leftovers wrapped in foil in the freezer, to poison my dad.
• • •
I have no proof she’s poisoning Dad. I also know it’s not the conventional way, because we all eat the samosas and are just the same. But with Dad it’s different. It’s the only explanation. The only reason he’d give off all his softness and light for a woman with nothing but hard lines and darkness.
When I was younger, I thought she did something different to the ones for Dad, and I debuted the first Experiment. When they left for the kitchen to make tea, I switched his plate with mine. The Experiment proved a failure.
Experiment Two took place a year later. I was ten and at school Bobby Martin had to go to the hospital after eating peanut butter on a cracker. Allergies! Poison to one and harmless to another. Perhaps there was something in the samosas, like an allergy, affecting only Dad. In other dishes he’d eat potatoes, peas, onions, dough, even cumin seeds. By process of elimination it had to be the spices: they of the unmarked little vials, multicolor powders, never used in anything else to my knowledge. So one day I climbed the counters and emptied out each jar and replaced them with the bulk bags she used for everything else. Turmeric for turmeric, garam masala for garam masala. Cumin and coriander looked the same to my eye and still the same to my nose.
Now to cover my tracks. Everything swept just fine into trash bags, except the turmeric. That sickly yellow stain that wouldn’t come off. Dad walked in and smiled.
“Oh I’ve been there,” he said. “It does come off, you know.”
He taught me to make a poultice of sorts with baking soda and water, a thick foamy paste that lifted off the yellow and left the countertops mostly clean with a pale yellow tinge. As his finishing touch, he moved a pot over the stain and backed away. I laughed; he ran a hand through my hair and mirrored my smile.
“You don’t want to mess with that stuff, okay?” he warned.
Mom made her next batch of samosas with the swapped spices and several batches after that. Nothing changed.
The trick, then, had to be in the method. Something in my mother’s hands. Perhaps she whispered a spell over the potatoes and peas and became some ethereal witch woman in the middle of our kitchen. So now, at fourteen, I live in the midst of Experiment Three. Watching and learning.
• • •
I ride the bus with Lacey that morning and she tells me that last night she heard her parents “doing it” through the walls. “Gross,” she says. I think that if it were truly gross, she wouldn’t be talking about it.
Sitting ahead of us is Eric Hernandez, who takes up a whole bus seat by spreading his knees in his basketball shorts. Like me, he is half one race, half another, but it comes together well in him: tall frame, light brown skin, broad shoulders, sharp jaw. Meanwhile I’m as dark as my mother, with my father’s caterpillar eyebrows, her nose and her mouth and nothing else of him. In front of Eric, I hide my face.
Lacey is blonde, her parents equally blonde. They ski and golf and, once a month, her parents stay at fancy hotels and she spends the night with us. She’s had the samosas and proclaims them too spicy. Mom, behind her back, calls her Adjective. Asks if she has a sister named Frilly and a brother named Plaid.
For the next three weeks, I conduct another Experiment, walking past my parents’ door in the middle of the night and listening for sounds. I hear them only once, in murmurs. We’d eaten samosas that night. A smidgen of proof.
• • •
Love potions have existed since the beginning of time. The Greeks and Romans, the Dark Ages, myths and legends. In every account it’s a treacly, false kind of love that rots from the inside out. It’s how my father looks at my mother, even as she walks away.
Once he told me of the day they met. A college class, paired up together for a project. He’d never noticed her in the room before. They met for lunch; he bought a limp hamburger from the cafeteria, and she brought her own meal and offered to share it. Golden samosas with mint chutney. There’d never been another food quite like it. Something danced on his white Midwestern tongue. An old family recipe, she told him. But she could make them again sometime. In that moment, he saw her. Deep brown eyes, flowing black hair. A sharp laugh now musical.
“I knew then,” he said, half a laugh in his voice, “I’d never notice another woman as long as I lived.”
Their arguments are long silences and closed doors. Always Dad at home and Mom in the world. Always Dad and me playing Monopoly and watching cartoons with an empty popcorn bowl between us. Always Dad holding everything in until I hear him through the thin wall separating our bedrooms. The crying.
Often I’m the one that suggests the next activity: another movie, more ice cream, moonlit drives to the car wash to hear the whooshing sound on either side of our windows.
Love potions have existed since the beginning of time. No one calls them poison but me.
• • •
We have a long-term substitute in English class because Mrs. Johansen is on maternity leave. Eric Hernandez sits in front of me and swings his legs back and forth like a metronome. His muscles tense and relax, and I watch. In those forty-five minutes, all I notice about the substitute is that he wears his hair long for an Indian. Past his collarbone and threatening the shoulders.
On the way out, the substitute stops me and asks about my last name. Ranganath-Benson spills over the line on any worksheet we’re given, so I write small and wrap the words in a curve around the bottom. He asks if I know a Meenakshi Ranganath.
“She’s my mother,” I say.
He looks sheepish with his hands in his pockets. He waits for everyone else to file out and then he stoops a little to whisper a question.
“Could you tell her Arun Gopal says hello?”
• • •
It’s as if light enters Mom’s skin when I tell her the name, dull complexion now glowing from the inside out. We’re eating instant pot rajma with minute rice. My father shovels the kidney beans with a spoon and talks with his mouth full.
“Who’s Arun Gopal?”
“A friend from high school,” she says. She sighs as if he’s heard the name a hundred times, though it’s new to both of us. She’s still dressed for work with the hospital badge dangling from her lapel. Only her heels are shoved to the corner, but she moves around the kitchen like they’re still on. Like a dance.
My father watches her, at first waiting for her to elaborate on Arun Gopal and high school, then his eyes glaze over and he watches her in the usual way. The poisoned way. Dreamy smile and all.
I clear the plates, and as Mom washes dishes, Dad stands up and tiptoes slowly to the fridge, winking at me and miming a finger to his lips. My smile flashes then stops. He reaches his hands into the lower freezer and nearly lifts a frozen samosa out of the bag. When Mom arrives, he almost cowers in her presence.
“We just had dinner,” she says, swatting his fingers away. She’s attempting lightness in her tone. The closest she can come to a joke.
• • •
“It’s a joke,” says Lacey. “You can’t take a joke, can you?”
She’s made the third snide remark this week on my resemblance to Arun Gopal, wondering if he’s my secret father or, worse yet, my soulmate. I want to scream at her about the ludicrous logic, why soulmates have to look like each other. Then I remember her parents and say nothing.
I can take a joke just fine.
I have to wait for Lacey to leave to deliver the note. It’s from my mother, tucked in an envelope and sealed with a sticker. At lunch I lifted the sticker and read. Looping sentences asking how he’s been, what he’s been up to these past twenty years. She asks him over for dinner on Tuesday. She picks that day deliberately, the one night a week my father goes out to play video games with his friends. The night my mother spends curled on a couch with a book, and I lurk in the back of the house. No one knocks, no one moves.
As Lacey leaves, I walk out with her, then scamper back to the classroom, hand him the note. He asks me to wait as his eyes travel each sentence.
“Tell her I’ll come. Does she like flowers?” he asks.
I wonder how this man became a teacher. I wonder if he sees the Benson in my last name.
• • •
I ask my father if I can go with him to play video games with his three friends I’ve only met a few times. None of them have kids or wives. I don’t even like video games.
He scrunches his face up. “Why?”
“Bored,” I say.
His arms are tree branches and the folds of his shirt smell like forest aftershave. But my father is no oak. He’s a thin, gnarled cypress with dangling Spanish moss. A gust of wind could topple him, yet he stays standing. Everything is warm. Something calms in me as he kisses the top of my head.
“You’re always welcome,” he says, letting me go from the hug. “The guys can show you the ropes.”
“That’s okay,” I tell him. Let him go. He’s someone else when he’s with his friends. His shoulders ease and he laughs loud enough to shake the chandelier.
It’s wet on my forehead and I wipe it away.
• • •
Arun Gopal comes to the house with his hair gelled, and with his long black locks he looks like a seal. A seal in a cheap suede coat and grocery store daisies in his fist.
Mom takes the daisies with the same shining eyes she gives my father’s roses. “Thank you.” She wears black and has a jade pendant at her throat that I’ve never seen before. He nearly hits his head on our door frame.
Mom’s fried a dozen samosas for the evening. Not the ones meal-prepped from the freezer either, but fresh ones. Half day off work to fry them. I know because I smell the spices as I come home from school, and I smell the fry oil from my room when the doorbell rings.
“Appetizers?” she asks our guest.
I know my mother has a main course. I know we won’t eat it.
Mom never asks me to leave the table. She brings me into every conversation. I watch her hands, her mouth. Lacey once told me you can tell everything a woman wants from the shape of her mouth. It’s probably why she coats her lips in gloss and talks to boys without fear. Mom is barefaced, snorting, but still at ease.
“Remember when they cracked the gator head and threw it into the river?” she asks. This snags my attention. “Gator head?”
“Our mascot was the gators. There was a giant concrete statue. There was this senior prank—do they still do senior pranks?”
“Anyway, that year they decided the senior prank would be to steal the gator statue, but they didn’t, couldn’t. A few drunk teenagers thinking they could lift a thousand pounds of concrete. So they take a few whacks at the head and it pops off. They toss it in the river. At graduation we put a mortarboard on the stump.”
I find myself laughing along, while Arun Gopal looks at her and the samosas, and nothing else.
• • •
In the days after, I am her messenger. Lurking in the freezer is another bag of frozen samosas, and each morning she fresh-fries just one and asks me to bring it to English class for Arun Gopal.
“Why don’t we just bring a plate with all of them at once?”
“They’ll get soggy that way, over time.”
Clever, I think. Control the dosage, begin a daily regimen. Tolerance builds. In health class we learn about drugs as if the bottle of Oxys on Ms. Palmer’s desk does not exist. I wonder what corporation would kill for my mother’s samosas.
“Are they Ammamma’s recipe?” I ask. I haven’t seen my grandmother in four years, and then four years before that. I see her face in black and white from photographs and hardly know her voice.
“The samosas? Oh no. Not our part of India, you know. It’s something I picked up in high school. Arun actually was the first one to try them out.”
She looks at me strangely, says nothing.
At school, I place the samosa on Arun Gopal’s desk in English class before he comes in. Lacey watches, and I tell her a truth without magic.
“Does your dad know?”
“He’ll find out.”
• • •
For the first few days there’s nothing, and then my mother leaves again for the evening and returns to Dad tight-lipped by the door. He asks her whereabouts, and after a breath and raised eyebrows, she says the library. I see dark circles beneath his eyes and wonder… sleeplessness? Withdrawal?
“Dad?” I call out. But my voice is strained out of my throat and it escapes softer than the air conditioner’s hum. He doesn’t turn around.
That night from their room, I hear noises again. Arguments. I can’t make out actual words but my father’s voice booms over hers. Yes, I breathe. Tell her. I have no idea what he tells her. But in my mind there are packed bags and he takes me with him and we live off scrambled eggs and wash our faces with hotel soap. Laughing and loveless together.
They’re both at home the next morning, getting ready for work in separate spheres of the living room. I stand between them and find a little bounce in my voice.
“Hey, Dad, has Mom ever told you about her high school graduation?”
He puts down his half-packed bag and looks at me. “Well, no, I don’t think so.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” Mom says, still whirling around the room in search of her things. “Where’s this coming from?”
I can’t see her face but I know it. Dark eyes shifting back and forth. A smile tempts the corners of my mouth.
• • •
Eric Hernandez asks Victoria Cunningham to Homecoming, and Lacey declares it a win for unremarkable women everywhere. I wonder if other families have recipes, and what Victoria used to lure her prey. Tainted boiled chicken? I watch them all through class and realize she tempts the old fashioned way: pushing her breasts together with her elbows.
“You can look like anything and get anyone, with breasts,” Lacey divines.
She gives me a once-over. My sallow face. Flat chest. I wonder how long we haven’t been friends.
• • •
The samosas go on and Arun Gopal comes to the house with more flowers. Roses this time. No one is home but me.
“She’s not here.”
“Do you know when she’ll be back?”
He’s got the dreaminess already. The dilated eyes. If Dad were home, would he recognize?
As we stand in the doorway, I try to make conversation. “How’d you meet my mom in high school?”
But he doesn’t hear me, just asks me to let him know when she comes back. I want to say I have no way of telling him except in class the next morning. Am I supposed to call out towards the sky and he’d come running? Send a message by carrier pigeon? I ask these questions in my head and he disappears in his car.
• • •
Mom asks me to pack the lunchboxes in the morning, mine and Dad’s, and the samosa for Arun Gopal. She leaves for work early and I catch a glimpse of her with the same dark circles beneath both eyes, subtler on her skin. Sleeplessness, then. I’d heard the walls rattle last night with their argument.
I look at the samosa and lift it into my bag for Arun Gopal, then I take it out and place it in my father’s. Bring the peace back. Restore balance. Then I take it out again.
I make my lunch samosas for the next seven days. If they change me, I don’t notice.
“Don’t those make you fat?” asks Lacey. Her lunch is lettuce leaves and water.
“I can will the fat to my breasts,” I tell her. The longer I stare unblinking, the more she might believe.
• • •
I come home to the sound of Mom’s cries. Hers are loud and free; they echo through the walls of the house. I envision her alone, but there’s my father, his face by her ear, his hands in her hair. He’s saying something I can’t hear from across the room. I can’t even read his lips.
From my place I can slip away through the front door and they will not hear me. I can walk from one neighborhood to the next, back to school, to Lacey’s, across the county—they won’t know. Something has broken to pieces because of me.
I’d envisioned this moment and it wasn’t like this.
Mom calls my name. Her eyes red-rimmed. Tissue clumps clutched in both fists. I sit by her on the couch with a whisper of space between us. Her hugs are not my father’s, but when she reaches for me I lean in.
She smells of sandalwood and orange lotion. I bury deeper.
Quietly she and my father say their I-love-yous aloud. I’m not sure if they’re to me or to each other. I could look up and see for sure, based on their eyes. I don’t.
I ask her if she put the mortarboard on the headless gator statue.
“What?” asks Dad.
In place of crying is a slow, thin chuckle. “How’d you know it was me?”
She fills it in for my father, all of it. Arun’s name and his presence at the table. She says what I’ve known and can prove, nothing more. There is nothing more.
She begins the story of the gator statue again. We sit in her hug and listen.
• • •
Arun Gopal leaves for another district and in his place is Ms. Palmer with her Oxys. I realize just how strapped for cash our school is, having one teacher stretch two subjects and know nothing about either one. We fill out our faded worksheets in silence.
I eat alone at lunch until there’s a weightw at the other end of the bench. It’s Eric Hernandez, freshly dumped by Victoria Cunningham on Homecoming Eve. The talk of the freshman class.
“Hey,” he says to me. I nod, feigning a full mouth without taking a bite.
“Whatcha got there?” he asks, motioning to my samosa.
Without thinking, I push it over to him on a napkin. He takes a bite.
“Good,” he says. “Really, really good.”
For a moment, nothing. Then he leans in a little closer and traces the lines around my face with his eyes. He asks if anyone’s ever told me I look like that Bollywood chick from the toothpaste commercials.
“Yeah?” I ask, a little louder than I want.
“You’ve got that going,” he says, and asks me my name. I say it all, and in my breathlessness, I leave off the Benson.